true crime

There Is No Villain in Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story

“To this day, I believe that Betty believes it was either her or them.”

Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick in Dirty John.
Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick. Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network
Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick in Dirty John.
Amanda Peet as Betty Broderick. Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network

Toward the end of the true-crime series Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, Dan Broderick addresses law school students with a question: “What happens when two people perceive the same thing differently?” The prominent San Diego medical malpractice attorney is teaching the students how a client’s perception of an event is their truth, and that version of the truth is all a lawyer needs to build a story in court.

Shortly after that lecture, on a early Sunday morning in November 1989, Dan and his second wife, Linda, are murdered as they lay asleep in their bed, shot by his ex-wife Betty Broderick. The new installment of the Dirty John anthology series is about that crime, but it’s also about how severely Dan misread Betty’s perception of what transpired between them up until that deadly moment: the years he spent lying about his affair with an assistant, his dismissal of her contributions to their 16-year marriage as it disintegrated, and his use of the legal system to deny her custody of their four children and the spousal support she thought she deserved.

“I wanted to do a show about her perceptions, of what she thought happened and why, how she had been treated and her reaction to it,” says Dirty John showrunner Alexandra Cunningham. “The narrative that she constructed for herself is the reason that she finally killed.”

Starring Amanda Peet and Christian Slater, The Betty Broderick Story covers the fairy-tale romance, marriage, and rise to power and wealth of this San Diego power couple, as well as their nasty split, dubbed “America’s messiest divorce” by Oprah. As portrayed in the tabloid press after the killings, “Crazy Betty” was a scorned woman who became unhinged in a jealous rage and committed double murder, finally taking her revenge on the man who divorced her and married his assistant. Betty was depicted as “angry, crazy, hysterical, and fat,” recalls Cunningham, who has been obsessed with the Broderick story since she was a teenager and read journalist Bella Stumbo’s book Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan & Betty Broderick so often that she stole it from the library.

“Then the older I got, I realized I had almost everything in common with Betty,” Cunningham says. “I was a white, upper-middle-class woman who drives an SUV and is married and has a child and has a mortgage and entwined finances. I’ve created a life that’s safe for me. When I find out someone is lying to me about anything, it’s devastating. The idea that a lie could affect everything about who I am and also untether me from reality, I’d like to think I’m mentally and emotionally stable enough to survive that, but I don’t know that I would.”

Betty, who has been incarcerated since the day 30 years ago she shot Dan and Linda, has never denied the killings. But Cunningham sensed that there was a thorny depth to the San Diego socialite that two previous TV movies and bottomless media coverage failed to capture. The result is a show that turns the story inside out to expose the motivations of all involved, and to also examine the pain and humiliation endured by a woman who, while representing herself at a property-settlement hearing, cross-examined her husband and heard him testify that he believed their divorce began on their wedding day.

“Every take I saw of Betty was that she was beyond irrational [with] jealousy, hatred, that there was no motive behind what she did. There was no exploration of the psychology behind this,” Cunningham said. “There were so many times that I was stricken at how right everyone was and how wrong at the same time — how right they were about how they felt and how wrong they were about how they acted.”

As recounted in The Betty Broderick Story, which premieres Tuesday night on USA, the Broderick marriage took place at a time when gender roles were carefully delineated and expectations were set in stone. Betty, who was raised in a strict Catholic home in the 1950s, finished her undergraduate degree in childhood psychology in three years so she could marry Dan and immediately start a family. She was presumed to be first and foremost a caretaker: On their honeymoon in 1969, Dan dismissed the hotel housekeeping staff, reasoning that Betty could make the bed herself. During the course of their marriage, Betty gave birth five times — one son died shortly after he was born — and was pregnant four other times while financially supporting the family as Dan went to medical school and law school.

Amanda Peet and Christian Slater in The Betty Broderick Story. Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network

“I was really scared to do it,” says Peet, whose gripping performance maintains an undercurrent of loneliness and insecurity, even when Betty is at her most jubilant. “I was really scared to be someone who was a murderer and then also was abusive. It was really important to me that Alexandra wanted to convey the story in a measured way and not completely vilify Dan Broderick. I think that’s why she wanted to emphasize the ways in which the social norms of the ’50s were very different. Even if you had a higher education and a lot of privileges, you were still meant to be married, and motherhood was supposed to be the receptacle for all your hopes and dreams and ambitions. Betty didn’t have another outlet.”

Unlike most true-crime shows, Cunningham’s rendering of the Broderick saga features no villains. Betty is both in control of her actions and out of her mind throughout the series, offering a more complete portrait of a woman who resorts to violence than is typically portrayed on television. The writers also are careful not to absolve Dan of all wrongdoing, opting instead to show how the disintegration of the relationship drove a mother of four and homemaker to decide that her only chance at finding peace was to kill the man who betrayed her.

“At my age, I know that hatred and jealousy don’t spontaneously generate,” Cunningham said. “They’re not created in a vacuum. Betty is very human. You can be sympathetic toward her and angry with her in the same moment. But my sympathy ended when she let herself into Dan and Linda’s house while they were sleeping. There is a difference between justifying actions and just trying to explain them. Betty is definitely not the last person who will shoot and kill people because of how she feels about her loss of identity and place in the world.”

The way the people in her life, the courts, and later the media dismissed Betty Broderick’s experience reminded executive producer Jessica Rhoades of other cases where desperate women resort to crimes, and their histories are not taken into account. In the divorce settlement, for example, Betty didn’t even ask for half of the millionaire couple’s assets but a judge saw fit to give her even less of what she requested.

“I’m intrigued by how people in the world react to complex women because all women are complex,” Rhoades said. “Some are just willing to show it, or can’t hide it, and are forced to deal with the world’s reaction to it. Some of these stories, like Lorena Bobbitt’s, are told like cautionary tales for men. That crazy woman! And then also, wink wink, to other women, like, Don’t be crazy! It was an exciting opportunity in this moment in contemporary television to tell a more nuanced version of what happened to Betty and Dan and Linda.”

Neither the writers nor Peet reached out to Broderick before production. Broderick, who has twice been denied parole, has not expressed remorse in countless interviews and letters she has written from prison, so Cunningham opted to stick with the written record of what transpired. “I just didn’t think that 30 years later, Betty’s better equipped to help me understand the narrative that she constructed for herself about what happened to her marriage and the meaning of fairness, a word that she weaponized,” she said. “To this day, I believe that Betty believes it was either her or them, and I feel so sad about that journey that she took and that she made other people take with her to become a person who could believe that.”

Since The Betty Broderick Story focuses mostly on Betty’s life before the murders, Peet said she thought it best to use Cunningham as a filter to think about how the real Betty might react to a situation instead of speaking to the woman herself. “When I acted it, I tried not to be judgmental,” Peet said. “She did commit some horrific acts even before the murders, and that was difficult. She did use her children as leverage. Ultimately, I think it was a sign of her mental illness. But on the other hand, the divorce laws in those days were much less protective of women in her position.”

The series moves through several decades, from Betty’s adolescence in the ’50s and ’60s to her conviction for the murders in 1991, but doesn’t tell the story chronologically. To avoid relying on chyrons to indicate time and place, producing director Maggie Kiley and director of photography Elie Smolkin worked with production designers and the wardrobe department to build a distinct look for each era. “We wanted to establish a language so you stayed with the characters when you moved them in and out,” Kiley said. “We designed an entire color story approach — the colors of the costumes, sets, the props — everything in a certain era came from one palette. It’s more of a subliminal suggestion that we’re in a different time versus hitting you over the head with it really hard.”

Peet wore about 200 different costumes and three wigs, which were coded “Good Betty” or “Best Betty” to mark how she evolved as the couple became rich. “There were times I looked in the mirror and thought, Oh, I am my mom,” she said. “I was freaking myself out a little. But it was very nostalgic and sort of poignant to be the same age that my mom was at that time.”

Cunningham, who made her directorial debut on the seventh episode, hired only women to helm the series. Kiley directed four episodes, including the pilot and the finale. Meera Menon, Kat Candler, and Shannon Kohli directed one each. “We were telling a story that had been told before without the female point of view, so we thought we had a special opportunity to bring them in and have a shorthand,” Rhoades said. “There was not a time where you had to explain very hard why Betty did something. All of our directors were like, ‘Yup, got it.’”

What all of the directors understood, Cunningham said, was how rage had become Betty Broderick’s power, and how, when she couldn’t indulge it, she felt she didn’t even exist. As Betty tells her friends in one scene, abusive and extreme acts like leaving vulgar messages on her ex-husband’s answering machine or driving her truck into the front door of his home served as her only emotional release. The series also shows how the devoted mother gave up her four children as a negotiating tactic in the divorce, rationalizing that if she didn’t get the property and financial settlement she deserved, she would not be able to afford taking care of them.

“Part of the reason it was important to show all those horrible moments of Betty was to show that she was not of the right mind,” Rhoades said. “She was an excellent mother, so at the moment that those decisions started hurting her children, you could see her descent. You could understand she was slipping into another frame of mind. And that’s the frame of mind that eventually leads to her doing the incredibly wrong thing.”

Cunningham chose to change the names of the Broderick children and to avoid including them in the story as much as possible. “I’m reluctant to talk about them because they are ultimate victims in the sense that they continue to live with this,” she said. “I want to be as respectful as I can. I just think a large part of Betty regarded them as an extension of Dan. She couldn’t treat them the way she knew she should, because she was in this constant struggle to get people to acknowledge what she was going through. And that started with the kids.”

The series raises the question of Dan Broderick’s role in his wife’s unraveling in a way that previous depictions of their lives never have. At the time of his death, Dan was in the prime of his life: He had a new home, a new wife, custody of his four children, and a thriving law practice. But he refused to apologize for his extramarital relationship or agree to give Betty the share of their wealth she thought she deserved.

“We talked a lot about this in the writers’ room, this idea that Dan just refused to take the win,” Cunningham said. “He had everything; he could afford to be generous. Yet there was something, maybe it was societal conditioning or maybe it was being a man who was born in the ’40s who thought he couldn’t allow her to behave this way. He had to punish her into behaving in a decorous manner before he could have a reasonable conversation with her.”

Despite Dan Broderick’s cruel assertion in court that he wanted to divorce Betty since their wedding day, it was clear to the show’s creators that, at one point, the couple fell in love and worked to build a life together. To convey Betty’s profound grief, it was necessary for the series to show the extent of what she had lost. “They achieve the top of the mountain, and certainly there are some cringeworthy moments along the way where everyone turns right when they should have turned left,” Kiley said. “But because everyone does that, you excuse it a little bit or, at least, you understand it more because you took the journey with them.”

One person who won’t go along for the ride is Betty Broderick herself. In an email from the California Institute for Women, the 72-year-old inmate told Vulture: “I will not watch that show. If it is untrue, it would upset me. If it is true, it will upset me even more, because I wouldn’t want to be reminded of, or relive any of those painful moments.”

There Is No Villain in Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story